As a health coach, I’m often asked to weigh in (hahaha) on the best way to eat: Is it Keto? Paleo? Vegetarian? Vegan? High carb? Low carb? Zero carb? High fat? High protein?
If you’ve followed my columns over the past year or so, you know I’m going to tell you that the (somewhat annoying) answer is: we are all bio-individual, the best way for you to eat is the way that makes you feel healthiest—not just physically, but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually as well.
You probably also know that I’m not a huge fan of substitutes, but because plant-based eating is getting a lot of attention these days, this month we take a closer look at some new developments in the area of plant-based meat alternatives.
Dr. Bernie Siegel, who speaks passionately about treating cancer with not just medicine and surgery but also love and humor, once joked that the most miserable people in heaven are the vegetarians—they gave up a lot of pleasure in this world only to land in the same place as those who ate meat while alive. Somehow, they really expected to be more exalted….
It’s refreshing to hear some humor injected into what has become a battleground among the privileged—because really, endlessly debating the question of what to eat is what my kids would call a #firstworldproblem: some people on our planet don’t have anything to eat, much less a choice.
But for now, let’s just waive that point.
Fast food vegan
There is a growing amount of evidence that being “plant-based” can increase your chances of not just living longer but living without many of the chronic diseases that plague a nation stuffing itself on the Standard American Diet (yes, SAD is a convenient acronym, for sure).
And yet, as I tell my clients, it’s easy to be a junk food vegan, or, thanks to the creators of meat alternatives such as Impossible and Beyond, a fast food vegan. Just as the highly-processed food giants jumped into the gluten-free market, companies (large and small) are scrambling to grab the largest market share of the rapidly growing plant-based market, and our old SAD friends, the fast food giants, are offering plant-based burgers alongside the tired old beef burgers.
A different lens
I find that most people look at being plant-based through one of three lenses: health, animal rights, environment. All of these are valid, and each one is an excellent reason for moving toward the plant side of the spectrum.
And I’d like to introduce two more: economics and ethics.
I do recognize that some people just don’t like the taste or texture of animal protein—and I think they are in the minority, so this column is really not about them. I’ve tried a number of “meat alternatives,” and while they do a fair job of imitating the texture of animal protein, the flavor is definitely not there (which might be considered a plus by this population).
While I try not to dictate to my clients what they should and shouldn’t be eating, I do try to instill in them a few principles. Here’s how I feel the meat alternatives stack up against each one:
- Constantly moving toward the least processed end of the food spectrum: apples, not apple-flavored candy. Meat alternatives are highly processed, in my opinion.
- Recognizable ingredients: if you were to make the food from scratch, would every ingredient be readily available to you in your grocery store/pantry? Plant-based “meats” often contain pea protein, which I don’t have in my kitchen although a lot of people might these days, pea protein being the new “it” powder in smoothies and the like. I also don’t have cellulose in my pantry although if you take Metamucil, you do. (Would you add Metamucil to a recipe, though?) I’m also not wild about the fact that canola oil is involved.
- Nutrient density: does the food contain a lot of micronutrients (vitamins, minerals) in addition to macronutrients (proteins, fats, carbohydrates)? you can Google plant-based “meats” and find lots of articles that compare them to each other and to the animal protein they are trying to replace. (Prepare to be surprised—if you’re watching your sodium, they aren’t the best choice.) What I haven’t found is much information on vitamins and minerals—presumably, the alternatives are plant-based and should have more, but given that they’re highly processed, even those are diminished.
My grade for plant-based meat alternatives in terms of healthfulness: C
This is a tricky question. I’m always curious about where animal rights-based vegans draw the line on what qualifies as an animal—and there seems to be as many definitions as there are diets out there. I’m all for that.
The bad news is that living creatures will die to bring you plant-based foods—fields are full of rabbits, mice, insects, and other collateral damage of harvesting. It’s a hidden cost for sure … and yet we do need to eat.
The good news is that yes, these meat alternatives probably cost a lot fewer lives in the making than a beef burger.
My grade plant-based meat alternatives in terms of animal rights: B.
It’s been pretty well documented that conventional animal husbandry is wreaking havoc on Mother Earth. If we choose to eat meat, the more environmentally sound choice is to purchase it directly from small, independent farmers who understand that Nature is a miraculous system of interdependent creatures and plants. The less environmentally sound choice is to buy meat from “big food.”
Aha! So at least here, meat alternatives must get an A? Well, there is the question of processing. Making those plant-based ingredients into beef-simulating patties and crumbles takes a lot of energy, and while I fully admit I haven’t researched this issue, I’m guessing that the factories making them are not running on renewable energy sources.
My grade for plant-based meat alternatives in terms of environment: B.
Once my clients are eating closer to the whole foods side of the spectrum on a regular basis, I sometimes introduce the idea of up-leveling by introducing a SOLE food diet—foods that are seasonal, organic, local, and ethical. (You can find earlier columns on that topic in We Love Ann Arbor’s archives.)
The moment I saw fast food chains jump on the plant-based burger wagon, I crossed these meat alternatives off my list. Most of the chains (fast food and casual dining alike) have little to no interest in buying quality ingredients from ethical sources, nor do they have a good track record of treating their employees with respect, so no, thank you.
That these alternatives would work with fast food chains can be viewed two ways: they’re bringing change to the big food system or they’re in it to make fast money.
I’m cynical, so my grade for plant-based meat alternatives in terms of economy/ethics: B.
I’m giving the meat alternatives a final grade of C+. Would I eat one of these burgers if it were served to me? Yes. Would I go out looking for a restaurant that serves them or buy them in the store? No.
And of course, I encourage you to do your own research and make your own decision.
Ann Arbor’s Liza Baker, a WLAA health columnist, is a health coach, cookbook author, nonprofit consultant, and woefully underpaid COO of a busy family of four spread across the globe. Liza lives in a half-empty nest in Ann Arbor and is passionate about health and happiness, education and empowerment, SOLE/SOUL food and social justice. You can get a taste of her work on her website and/or join the (Sorta) Secret Sisterhood, her membership site for women over 40.